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When Smart Folks Miss...

| 19 Comments

One thing about the penetration of blogging into the Real World is the rise of blogs by people who actually Do Stuff For A Living That Most Of Us Blog About - in my case, the rise of the professional counterinsurgency blogs like Kings of War, Abu Muquama, MountainRunner, etc. etc.

I've talked about the change it necessarily brings to amateurs like us when grownups start showing up in the space.

But even though I have mad respect for authors like that - I take them seriously enough that my default position when I disagree with them is to change my mind - every so often they just flat get it wrong.

In this case, it's Dr. Irack writing approvingly (if with qualifications) at Abu Muquama's place about an oped by Andrew Bacevich.

In this context, Andrew Bacevich has an interesting critique of the "Long War." Bacevich argues that the entire notion, embraced by both the reviled Rumsfeld and the adored Gates, inevitably leads us down an endless imperial path in a Sisyphusian attempt to transform other societies when we should be focusing on renewing our own not-so-shining "city on the hill."

Here they are treading a bit on my own turf - American political theory. And I'll suggest both that Bacevitch is factually wrong ("little talent for changing the way others live"? Japan and Germany, anyone? It's amusing to me that we're both imperialists and totally unsuccessful at actually, you, know, having an imperium...) and deeply misreads the American situation and the American project.

Here's Bacevitch, with my comments:

Back in September 2001, Rumsfeld put it this way: "We have a choice -- either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter." In this context, "they" represent the billion or so Muslims inhabiting the greater Middle East.

When Rumsfeld offered this statement of purpose and President Bush committed the United States to open-ended war, both assumed that U.S. military supremacy was beyond dispute. At the time, most Americans shared that assumption. A conviction that "the troops" were unstoppable invested the idea of transforming the greater Middle East with a superficial plausibility.

Yet by the time Gates spoke last month, the limits of American military power had long since become apparent. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the opening rounds of the generational campaign are now well underway. By historical standards, each qualifies as a fairly small war. In neither case, however, have U.S. forces been able to achieve decisive victory. In both cases, barring drastic changes in U.S. policy, fighting will drag on for years to come.

I'm constantly puzzled by this. Everything I have read about counterinsurgency - and I've read many of the books on the Abu Muquama reading list - suggests that it is, at best, the matter of much of a decade. Yes, the fighting will 'drag on' for years to come, and yes - as always, as in all wars, it is a matter of making sufficient progress before the political will to sustain runs out. Here Bacevitch isn't asking whether it's worth it, or whether victory is a good idea - he's simply saying it's too hard.

In the meantime, what has the Long War achieved? The answer to that question is indisputable: not much. Counting on military might to change the way they live isn't working. If anything, the effort has backfired.

Since 2001, the price of oil per barrel has quadrupled, adversely affecting all but the wealthiest Americans. Efforts to spread democracy have either stalled or succeeded only in enhancing the standing of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The much-hyped Iraqi nuclear threat turned out to be illusory. To sustain the overstretched American imperium, we are accumulating debt at a staggering clip. And with U.S. soldiers shouldering repetitive combat tours, the strength of our army slowly ebbs away.

I don't know; I missed the part where we were fighting for cheap oil anywhere except in the fevered imaginations of the DU crowd. Yes, oil is going up in price - in part because of the raging economic success of China and India, in part because of the manipulations of market-makers, in part because we refuse to sensibly plan an energy policy, in part because we lack a government willing to really lay out the hard choices to the American people. What did he think was going to happen in Arab countries where there has been repression for centuries and where the leading forces of opposition also happen to oppose us. We are accumulating debt to maintain the imperium? That's flatly ridiculous. We are accumulating debt because our population keeps wanting to increase its standard of living beyond what it can afford - in large part to mask the reality many face in the newly flattened world of competition with Korea, India, the Philippines and Vietnam - among others. It's the failure of our leaders to face this - not some fantasy imperium that lives on in the imaginations of the wild colonial boys in academe. yes, we are stretching and straining our army, and yes, we will have to do something about it. But, simply, I'll ask if we have military better able today to face the real challenges of the next decade than we had five years ago. yes, materiel must be replaced, and yes many of the good ones - the Nagls - are leaving. I don't want to underestimate the challenge the next Administration will face in maintaining and refitting our military. But I do think it ridiculous to suggest that it is irretrievably broken.

Meanwhile, the immediate danger to the American way of life comes not from terrorists but from our own adamant refusal to live within our means. American profligacy, not Islamic radicals, triggered the mortgage crisis that underlies our current economic distress.

The mortgage crisis is a symptom, not a cause. To suggest that that relatively typical and minor blip in the financial markets is a nation-threatening crisis is simply hyperventilating. Someone get him a paper bag, please.

Bluntly, the Long War has proved to be a monumental flop. Yet Gates, channeling Rumsfeld, would have us believe that perpetual war constitutes the sole option available to the world's most powerful nation. This represents a profound failure of imagination. It also misreads our own history.

Look, we face not one problem, but many. Some are interrelated in obvious ways, some less so, some in ways we won't understand until far in the future. It's absurdly simplistic to suggest that the conflict with Islamic radicalism is the only issue we face, or that our response to it - regardless of what form it takes - is the root cause of every problem we have.

The truth is that the United States, with rare exceptions, has demonstrated little talent for changing the way others live. We have enjoyed far greater success in making necessary adjustments to our own way of life, preserving and renewing what we value most. Early in the 20th century, Progressives rounded off the rough edges of the Industrial Revolution, deflecting looming threats to social harmony. During the Depression, FDR's New Deal reformed capitalism and thereby saved it. Here lies the real genius of American politics.

No, the real genius of American politics is its ability to absorb, its ability to accommodate, its ability to adapt - all within a core framework of values which, when shared, become the center of the American experience. And I'll suggest that sharing it - not necessarily, or even usefully, at the point of a gun - is the modern American project. I'll refer you to Schaar on this as he channels Lincoln's call for an American civic religion.

Rumsfeld got it exactly backward. Although we do face a choice, it's not the one that he described. The actual choice is this one: We can either persist in our efforts to change the way they live -- in which case the war of no exits will surely lead to bankruptcy and exhaustion. Or we can recognize the folly of generational war and choose instead to put our own house in order: curbing our appetites, paying our bills and ending our self-destructive dependency on foreign oil and foreign credit.

And that will - somehow, miraculously - defuse Islamic radicalism? That's flatly ridiculous.

Salvation does not lie abroad. It's here at home.

Oh, please. Autarky again? that's beyond stupid, and not worth the ink wasted in the LA Times, much less the attention of a smart person like Dr. Irack.

19 Comments

In response to the events of 11 September, 2001, and to changed ideas about which enemies could be tolerated in view of the vulnerability that those attacks underline, we never counted on the American military to overwhelm, defeat and transform hostile societies. Rather, we counted on their people's love of freedom and their capacity to transform themselves collectively to make their political institutions conform to their democratic and enlightened values, once the brittle and thin layer of tyranny that stifled their aspirations for freedom was cracked. Iraq was never meant to be conquered: it was meant to be liberated.

For the task that was assigned to it in this scheme of things, the strength of the American military was amply sufficient.

Instead, the fault lay in the description of the enemy ideology as friendly, in the description of the peaceful religion of Islam as a victim, which tiny numbers of men hostile to it were trying to hijack. That was never so.

My eyes glaze over when I read yet another misrepresentation of what we were about in our first response to the jihad assaults of the early 21st centuries.

It's easy to make yourself seem brilliant and good by contrast with the evil fools of Washington if you rewrite history to take away the noble and generous but tragically misguided doctrines on which they acted and substitute for them malign, conspiratorial and transparently stupid motives and a familiar cast of invented villains: Haliburton, Likud, Zionists, Neocons, those arrogant and xenophobic right-wing Americans, and so on.

If you make it out that George W. Bush seriously meant to smash another society to atoms and reforge it flawless and whole, like Siegfried reforging Nothung, then you can be clever by pointing out that America never had the force to do that, nothing like it. And if you make what was attempted unsuccessfully in the past out to be so stupid, then to make better recommendations for future policy is as easy as it is pleasant: whatever please you will be cleverer than what was done, and there is no need for the painful tasks of identifying real enemies and working out what to do with them in the face of ugly odds.

This general policy is very common, lazy, self-satisfying for those who engage in it, and worthless. It offers no insight. Statements that are written from this fundamentally dishonest and trivial perspective are not worth paying attention to, except as the raw material of opinion surveys and things of that nature.

Well, yes why not. Just submit to Islam and everything will be fine. That's the real argument of the LAT and this counter-argument of the anti-Long War people.

What both ignore (Rummy, Gates, vs. Bacevich) is that nuclear proliferation makes everything moot. We face the threat of loss of US cities by proliferation plus unstable or anti-American regimes and terrorist groups.

Now with modern technology, even poor organizations have the ability to kill millions of Americans!

We are likely neither to have a "Long War" nor meekly submit to Islam. Rather, AQ and other groups will nuke us and demand submission as in Europe and bombs (Madrid, London) that got submission. Why not a nuclear version of the same?

But we are not Europe. Nor can the aftermath (if we are nuked once unless the response is overwhelming, we'll be nuked again with impunity) be ignored. THAT is likely to be extremely ugly.

Not really that surprising; Capt. Bacevich had the same attitude about Central America in the 1980s; specially El Salvador. Luckily we didn't follow his advice.

Yet by the time Gates spoke last month, the limits of American military power had long since become apparent. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the opening rounds of the generational campaign are now well underway. By historical standards, each qualifies as a fairly small war. In neither case, however, have U.S. forces been able to achieve decisive victory.

Wait what? We haven't even begun to test the limits of American military power, because those limits involve lots and lots of blowing things up. The "problem" is that we do not want to blow everything up... yet. If the goal in Iraq/Afghanistan was to literally bomb the countries back into the stone age, we would have been over and done with it, troops safely back home, leaving the unfortunate citizens to try and rebuild a wrecked state. But that is not the goal articulated by the Bush Doctrine.

We're using an inherently destructive force to try and build up a nation and a culture; if anything the setbacks in Iraq represent a failure of our diplomatic corps, not our armed forces. Leaving aside trivial departmental organizing (do cultural anthropologists fall under State, or Defense? which dept is better suited to execute a propaganda campaign in the Middle East?), the problem is that the military has been forced to step up and fill the role of doing all the politicking in the region.

Look at the stories coming from Michael Yon or the milblogs; they all involve soldiers doing on-the-ground bureaucratic work that should have been filled by an able and fearless diplomatic corps deployed alongside the armed troops. God bless them for doing it and doing it well, but this is not a part of their jobs. Wither the State Department? Where are all the lefty experts who claim to be so knowledgable about Iraq and the Middle East, and rail in the newspapers against everything we do in the ME--why haven't they gone to Iraq and solved everything with a magic wave of their multiculturalist hands? (Can we start calling Juan Cole a chickendove?)

I'll believe our military is beyond its limits when the President tells the Pentagon "go destroy this" and they can't pull it off.

AM and Charlie are golden. Dr. Irack, not so much, I suspect he would be at home at the HuffPo - he has really been dissappointing.

Bacevich? Well I haven't agreed much with him for a long time, this is no different.

PS. AL - I am almost finished with The Utility of Force by GEN Smith. If you haven't read this (it is now out in paperback) it addresses a lot of this stuff and why we don't "win" wars anymore. I recommend it highly. It and T.X. Hammes' book are major.

I bought Hammes' book for Biggest Guy and read it 1st...I'll look at the other as well. I'm also reading his copy of 'Masters of War' by Handel which has a chapter on war-ending. I'm looking forward to getting there...

A.L.

"We are likely neither to have a "Long War" nor meekly submit to Islam. Rather, AQ and other groups will nuke us and demand submission as in Europe and bombs (Madrid, London) that got submission. Why not a nuclear version of the same?"

Because the response to such an event would be swift, massive, decisive and final - unless the West has completely lost its backbone, in which case perhaps we do all deserve dhimmi slavery. And just about everyone in the West will be clamouring for it - bar the smallest possible "peace at any price" fringe.

No Islam = no Islamic terrorism. What such a response would do to us is a very interesting and somewhat scary question.

David Blue,

It's easy to make yourself seem brilliant and good ... if you rewrite history

Yes, indeed; and note too that one shorter version of what you say is this: that most of those doing the rewriting and the seeming are merely fulfilling the observation that "all things are easy to the man who doesn't actually have to do them".

AL, I'm stuck thinking of counterinsurgencies conducted by a country half the globe away from the principal theatres of war culturally, religiously, and even linguistically completely foreign that came out well. In other words, what examples as either a short war or a long war are you talking about?

All I know about the Malayan counterinsurgency is what I read on Wikipedia. The number of British troops and casualties were both a fraction of what we have suffered in Iraq. It also appears that the British were able to create a much more effective Malayan government-in-waiting and indigenous army than we have. And to a considerable extent, their previous presence as colonizers gave them advantages that we lack in Iraq.

Russia tried bombing Chechnya back to the Stone Age. It's remarkable how little effect it seems to have had, but I'm sure that the Moscow equivalents of the typical WoC commenter felt good about it for a while.

From this Dr. Irack:

Progressives rounded off the rough edges of the Industrial Revolution, deflecting looming threats to social harmony. (emphasis mine)

This pretty much sums up his view basis. Another socialist. (Realize that when I say socialist I pretty much mean unapologetic murderer or useful idiot for the same) Useless nit.

There is a long war going on, but it may not be the one everyone thinks it is. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were won in weeks and quite decisively, thank you. The reformation of broken nations is taking longer. And please, do not misunderstand, we did not break those nations, radical Islam and a bloodthirsty dictator did. We are trying to repair the damage.

From The Unbeliever:

...Wither the State Department? Where are all the lefty experts who claim to be so knowledgeable about Iraq and the Middle East, and rail in the newspapers against everything we do in the ME--why haven't they gone to Iraq and solved everything with a magic wave of their multiculturalist hands?

Whither indeed. And "chickendove", I really. really like that! Can we use that term? Why are not the Juan Cole's out volunteering to set us aright? Perhaps talk therapy is all they know? They leave the doing to the embittered, underemployed, gun toting, angry religionists from those hick 'Blue' states. You know, guys like me. (Oh, wait, I'm from a 'Red' state...)

To sustain the overstretched American Imperium, we are accumulating debt at a staggering clip.

No, sparky, a failed idea carried on by the Democrats and fake conservatives called the GoP, these days, who spend on unneeded social programs like drunken sailors is putting the nation in debt. Maybe time for a Constitutional Amendment that mandates a balanced budget? I would pay money to watch the pols rend each other with their teeth fighting over the leftovers like dogs. Us 'embittered, underemployed, gun toting, angry religionists from those hick 'Blue' states' pay our bills on time and try to keep debt to a minimum. The limousine liberals in SF & NY don't have to worry, they are already rich.

(Note to the 'Marshal' - the word filter took s c r a p s and made it a bad word)

From Bacevich:

American profligacy, not Islamic radicals, triggered the mortgage crisis that underlies our current economic distress.

I can agree somewhat if we put the blame where it really rests and if we can ignore external forces. The subprime crisis rests with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 This has caused banks and other lenders to make ill-advised loans to those who cannot qualify through normal channels, if they wish to do business in these areas. The root cause of the problem is another stupid, ill advised socialist giveaway that should have never happened.

There is a sea change coming. Found wealth is driving tribalist societies to think they have something valuable to say in a modern, networked world. It has allowed their failed and backward societal model (Islam) the irrational belief they matter. Remember that at the end of WWII those nations were just being carved out of the remains of the Ottomans. The real project is to modernize them in a very, very short time in the scale of things. If we succeed it will bode well for Islam. If we fail it could well be the end of it.

But what if, as seems far more likely to me, the first target of terrorists getting nukes is NOT the USA, but rather Tel Aviv?

Does the US, and the West, still respond with massive force?

I see far too much anti-Israel sentiment as a set-up to allow the West to claim "they had it coming" when an A bomb comes.

And Israeli leaders fear this too, which is why there is a lot of talk about what to do about Iran. And much of the talk in the US seems to be "let the Israelis do the first strike".

It is, indeed, the Tribal Jihad vs. McWorld.

I think the world can't afford another Jimmy Carter as president right now, so no to Obama.

Mr. Lazarus:

What is being talked about here, somewhat circuitously, isn't bombing them back to the Stone Age. It's more like bombing them back to the Archean.

Tom Gray: What happens if the first strike is Tel Aviv is that Tehran, Mecca, Medina, Qom, Damascus and Amman go up in smoke within an hour. Unlike us, Israel has a spine - and I am quite sure that this has been planned for years.

Robohobo: Iraq might have been nasty, but it was a working country. Now it isn't. Who did the breaking?

Everything I have read about counterinsurgency - and I've read many of the books on the Abu Muquama reading list - suggests that it is, at best, the matter of much of a decade.
And, the general populace has not been informed of this - only when we've educated ourselves. From mission accomplished to the frequent 'may be able to reduce our forces' over the past 5 years, the extent to which we must be committed has been avoided.
He's addressing the message that has been given, not the past experiences or very likely reality.

Those three paragraphs together are throwing me for a loop - when Rumsfeld was talking, and when we made these commitments, there was no concept of COIN becoming as necessary or as sapping so much of the military's time and strength.

_I missed the part where we were fighting for cheap oil anywhere except in the fevered imaginations of the DU crowd. _
Ah, here you go
And this

(Cheap oil is not necessarily what is wanted - expensive but affordable, and accessible to American corporations, somewhat different)

robohobo at #10
The subprime crisis rests with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977
Err, no, it's at best a part of it - that act does force loans to consumers lower on the ladder, but in no way forces people to give them superior terms, which is what this is rooted in.
Ill-advised loans are perfectly fine, as long as they are known to be ill-advised, especially when they go into tranches. A great problem is that this information got lost as they paper got skipped along.
I'd recommend 'This American Life's' podcast from a couple of weeks ago about the 'Giant Pool of Money'. While not as informative as arguing about Black-Scholes v Monte Carlo, it helps.
The repeal of the Glass/Steagal Act has a much greater affect, along with the abandonment of regulation of many things in finance.

"Tom Gray: What happens if the first strike is Tel Aviv is that Tehran, Mecca, Medina, Qom, Damascus and Amman go up in smoke within an hour. Unlike us, Israel has a spine - and I am quite sure that this has been planned for years"

The Samson response. I doubt doubt you are right, but two things scare me:

1.We've trained the Arabs and Iranians to believe that the West will handcuff Israel in a pinch. Its less important what we believe Israel will do than what the people with the nukes believe Israel will do. Deterrance only works if the enemy believes they should be deterred. Could Iran believe they can get away with smuggling a nuke into Tel Aviv and assuming Israel will have to spend a little time proving the connection, and in the meantime the West will demand Israel stand down? We may think that is naive, but who knows what Iran thinks after the number of times the West has pulled the football away from Israel.

2.Along those lines, if Israel's response isnt instant (which it had better be), Russia or China could well threaten retribution to protect the Middle East from reprisal. This could lead to WW3 quite literally.

Along those lines, if Israel's response isnt instant (which it had better be), Russia or China could well threaten retribution to protect the Middle East from reprisal. This could lead to WW3 quite literally.

More likely we'd end up looking at the Middle East being partitioned out amongst the major players (as ironic as that would be for China). In which case I wonder if anyone'd bother inviting the Europeans to the party...

Fletcher said:

Iraq might have been nasty, but it was a working country. Now it isn't. Who did the breaking?

Well, that depends who you ask. I know a LtC in the Texas Guard who was one of the first in because he was civilian reconstruction. When asked about this point specifically, his answer was that if you were one of Saddam's tribe members and lived in one of the 'good' neighborhoods you got electricity 24/7, sewer service, etc. If you were NOT then you got....nada, nothing, zip. THAT jives with all I have learned since then. There was nothing in most places to reconstruct because it had never been there to start with.

That is much the same as the situation in the old USSR - if you were high enough in the government, you shopped in private stores and there was plenty, if you weren't, well, we know how that went. All kleptocracies work that way. From Damascus to Amman to Tehran.

Very good post.

Considering the lack of expertise in State and the CIA regarding the Middle East how can anyone believe they have the answers for anything. It will be interesting to see what historians think of the Embassy's cable reporting in the Saddam era. State has few personnel who speak Arabic and is loath to train non political types in foreign languages. So it isn't unusual to see Spanish speakers in the Middle East but few people who speak Arabic. Lack of language skills results in cocktail circuit cluster f----.

Little wonder then no one takes the State Dept serously,and the less said about the CIA the better.

To end on a bright note, the 2008 election holds the promise that both these agncies will only get worse, regardless of who wins given the personalities of the two leading candidates.

Further to Robohobo's comment - the US is/was not the one blowing up the electric grid in 2004 and 2005 (or 2006 or even now). A lot of the "non-functioning" infrastructure is the result of the "insurgents" (Baathists, AQI, or even just other criminal gangs who didn't get paid enough protection money) taking it down faster then we can repair it.

Is it the USA's fault? Well, to the extent we didn't have enought troops to maintain order after the military victory, maybe. But I don't think we take the entire blame for everything that has gone wrong in Iraq since we overthrew Saddam - as the cliche says, the other side gets a vote, too!

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